Disclosure zero: the race organizer, Richard Bull, is a good friend.
Putting together a scrapbook is always a very personal project. My scrapbook is never going to be yours. The information out there, including this scrapbook, is stupendous and easily accessible. Or even beyond that, nearly unavoidable. When I started travelling, one still had somewhat of a choice. Approach the unknown tabula rasa or as prepared as possible. The information society that we live in makes the former strategy a pipe dream.
For those that read my scraps in preparation for a visit to Nepal, or more specifically, Mustang, a bit about my personal history with the country. That is of no relevance in and of itself but important by way of disclosure. Because that history is undoubtedly going to colour much of my particular interests, observations and opinions. Be aware!
Disclosure one: my first Nepal visit was more than 35 years ago. That alone should make you wary. Among the old-timers I am still a youngster, but the first generation is dying out, the next one is getting old, and I’m on my way. And the world, including Nepal has changed. Change is always resisted, the old days were always better, and however much my neo-cortex censors this programming, it shines through. Not yet twenty, I travelled overland, using trains and buses, from Athens to Kathmandu. Lonely planet didn’t exist, I had copied some info from a stapled-together overland guide. Word of mouth was my most important source. Afghanistan had already closed its borders to Westerners, although the Soviets hadn’t moved in yet. So a couple of us took the train down South and crossed into Baluchistan. I was near constantly on the move, often travelling at night, and arrived in destination Kathmandu within weeks, still very slow in comparison with the ‘package tourist’ option of those days, the magic bus. I just found this clip on youtube which is as close as it gets to my first Nepal experience (although I was on my own).
I stayed six weeks, trekked to the Khumbu (Gokyo, Cho la) in May/June from what was then the roadhead (Lamosangu on the way to the Tibetan border), and visited Pokhara (my lodging a palm-thatched hut at lake side).
Three and a half year later I visited again, with my friend Han, as part of a 9 months South Asia trip. In February 1982 we trekked to Manang from Dumre on the Kathmandu-Pokhara road (like in the above video) but couldn’t cross the Thorung la because of snow conditions. I also had a peek at Ganesh Himal and visited Gosainkunda.
Again some years later, Marjan and I travelled the overland route together, partly hitching, partly public transport, and spent two years living in Benares. Didn’t make it to Nepal but trekked in Uttarakhand (which wasn’t a separate state yet) and Tibetan Zanskar (1986) – spending two weeks being the only foreigners in the whole region.
Disclosure two: I’ve lived and worked in Nepal for close to eight years in total. Nepal became our home in autumn of 1989, when we moved there with our first child, to manage Summit trekking. That first stay lasted nearly 4.5 years. The second one from August 2009 until December 2012, now as managing director of Summit Hotel, brought us to the same green compound on a hill overlooking Kathmandu. Our time in India and the Hindi skills acquired there meant that Nepali was easy to pick up, and culturally, lots was very familiar. In between we returned twice for a monsoon trek with all the kids, and twice (2008 and 2009) to participate in the Annapurna Mandala Trail, a French-organized multi-stage event in the Annapurna area. Actually, near all of our serious trekking, also when we lived in Kathmandu, was done in monsoon season. In 1993 we crossed the Yalung La into Rolwaling, spending lots of time in kharka/goth country, the alpine ridge meadows where the villagers from the valley live a semi-nomadic existence with their livestock during the summer months. We returned to that ridge country, North of Jiri, in 2012 with a group of family and friends. And in the intermediate years we spend four summer weeks (2000) in The Annapurna region, first on the kharka’s South of the Namun Banjyang, then in the (at that time still restricted) Tibetan area of Nar & Phu, East of Mustang, and finally, the Manang valley and the Thorung La to Muktinath. In 2007 we spend a wet summer in the Khumbu.
Obviously, with close to eight years living and working in Kathmandu, time spent on the trails was a minor shaper of my outlook. Let’s have a quick look at the bucolic valley that I spent most of my time in. What I remember of 1978, is an overwhelmingly rural environment, with pockets of concentrated urban ‘villages’ (the traditional Newar settlement pattern), not much traffic,roads, apart from a couple of main ones were dirt tracks. The below doesn’t depict the changes up to the present time but the message is clear enough, especially given the at least 50% increase in population of Kathmandu & Patan cities in the following decade (urban migration was fuelled by the civil war).
More people, goes with more vehicles, and more roads. In the valley, the number of vehicles between 2000 and now sort of quadrupled. More vehicles goes with more pollution too, especially because the valley is a bowl, very good at keeping the exhaust stuck under an inversion layer lid.
These changes were more extreme in the valley than in Nepal as a whole. The country’s population grew faster than the world average (although it slowed down during the last decade to close to that average), but much slower than in the valley:
Total kilometres of road (surfaced and dirt road together) has increased dramatically, from a baseline, when the country opened to the outside world, of no roads, to the current situation of more and more regions being opened up, with all the pros and cons that come with road access.
Disclosure three: this has left me as conflicted about what is going on in Nepal as most who’ve been around for a while. I’ve struggled with these changes, but I remind myself that the pastoral I experienced first time round was a desperately poor, desperately unequal, autocracy. It now is a desperately poor and desperately unequal, sort-of democracy, but whatever one may think of the changes, it never was the idyll tourists like me thought they encountered. I remind myself that Nepal may have been closed to tourists until the early 1950s but it has always survived on trade and migration, it never was the shangrila floating about in its own utopian self-sufficiency. I remind myself that the appeal of mountain regions to modern sensibilities tells us all about ourselves, and preciously little about these marginal regions that always have been the refuge for those fleeing the control of states. I remind myself that the sentiment of happy and harmonious village existence relates to reality as the mirror image of sin city dystopia to urban existence.
I’m fond of circles, so for closure of this confessional statement, let’s go hook up with disclosure zero once more. But first some local sounds and images, that cut into my soul, and remind me I’ll never ever be able to leave this place.
For me, one purpose of this scrapbook is helping Richard out with some interesting, and positive writing to add to the rich and enticing content already available on the Mustangtrailrace site. You may disagree with my take on what counts as positive. But as long as I manage to tickle your interest, enough to let my scraps get to you, I’ll be satisfied. The country and the running will take care of the rest. For me, Nepal’s reality doesn’t need corrective photoshopping. Like life anywhere, it’s has sunny and dark sides, it is overwhelming, depressing, uplifting and breathtaking.
Enough boring preface. Let’s get on with it.